August 10, 2010
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Book Reviews

Dave Winer suggests that book reviews like the New York Times are using the wrong business model. Instead of selling ads, he proposes, they should sell books and take a cut of each book they sell.

In lots of ways, this makes sense. Indeed, I always thought one of the shortcomings of the late Drood Review of Mystery was that you’d read about a book but couldn’t immediately order it. Nowadays, of course, we have Amazon and Alibris, but this used to be a real obstacle.

Winer’s model, unfortunately replaces one perverse incentive with a new one. Today, newspaper reviews are overly dramatic because dramatic reviews sell papers. A really devastating review is memorable, and a review that promises that a book, movie, or restaurant is the best thing ever attempted is bound to get attention. It’s a respectable version of trolling: extreme views flourish while sound judgment languishes. But Winer’s model could easily replace that incentive with one that seeks chiefly to move product, and to review whatever titles are most likely to get great box office. Instead of over-reacting to important books, we might get even more rose-tinted assessments of best-selling serial sequels.